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  • This Is 1975, Not 1875:Despair and Longings in Women’s Letters to Cambridge Lesbian Liberation and Daughters of Bilitis Counselor Julie Lee in the 1970s
  • Heather Murray (bio)

In Theodore Roethke’s 1954 Poem, “Elegy for Jane: My Student, Thrown by a Horse,” a teacher whose beloved student has died ponders how it was possible that he could have had such a depth of feeling for her: “I, with no rights in this matter, neither father nor lover.” His poem offers an arresting commentary on the inaccessibility of the love object, outside of familial or romantic contexts, and who has the “rights,” from an emotional standpoint, to love whom. The emotional confusion evoked here could be applied to anyone who felt disconcerted, distressed, and intrigued by the boundary between emotional closeness and sexuality. Though historians of emotions and sexuality have primarily written about this sort of sensibility during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially in the form of romantic friendship, it was also a prominent, though more disparaged and less easily understood, sentiment in the mid- and late twentieth century.1 [End Page 96]

What follows is a case study from a small body of correspondence that North American women, young and old, rural and urban, married and single, sent to a lesbian collective and a lesbian counselor throughout the 1970s. Their letters provide a view into intimate expression outside of the institutional context of psychoanalysis but also apart from a particular lesbian political community. Instead, the letters could be said to represent a grasping at a sort of community of feeling, expressed within a private, therapeutic context rather than the public platform of political communities.

These were not confessional letters as such but more fractured and hazy stories of fears and longings expressed as personal crises that are strikingly incongruous with the coming-out stories most commonly associated with lesbian feminist communities and with broader gay liberationist cultures during the 1970s.2 In an era when friendship, sexuality, and love were becoming more politicized, and despair about potential homosexuality was seemingly out of step with the times, letter-writing therapy allowed women a more intensely private experience of their sexuality and attachments, giving leeway for them to express self-annihilation rather than the self-affirmation or self-realization that lesbian feminist political communities and the gay pride movement sought in their attempts at destigmatization.3 The rawness of self-expression here suggests what feelings got lost during the gay liberation period, when a politicized model of homosexuality displaced the mental sickness model in gay self-interpretation. The letters offer a view into a halting, trepidatious perception of loving other women for those who mostly lived outside the centers of activism and for those who did not translate their feelings into politically informed selfhood.

As much as these letters diverge from the gay pride narrative of the 1970s, the women writing them were nonetheless in contact with more politicized lesbians, and the two had at least some commonalities. Letter-writing therapy could be considered a kind of alternative therapeutic culture, one that was widely embraced by both politicized and by apolitical lesbians alike. Perhaps most importantly, though, there were parallels between how letter writers expressed themselves in private contexts and how lesbians with feminist viewpoints understood themselves in the public context of political writings. Both adapted modes of intimacy characteristic of the past, most [End Page 97] especially the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century passionate friendships between women.4 Though society in the late twentieth century was no longer so gender segregated, the ambiguity surrounding romantic or simply intense feelings suggests an appreciation for the capaciousness of love even in an era when love’s meanings or outlets were more narrowly defined to strictly families and romantic partners and when ways of loving were more rigid. In this way, the disclosures in these letters complicate and expand our understandings of intense loving relationships—both those that are on the borders of the sexual and those that are more directly sexual—as these were conceived and expressed in the late twentieth century. The impassioned, all-consuming, and at times anxious feelings of these letter writers provide an intriguing instance in which...


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pp. 96-122
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